Friday, April 21, 2017

Thoughts about clothes and personal style

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I'm not a fashion blogger, but spring and fall tend to be the seasons when I start thinking in depth about my wardrobe, and in particular, about my personal style. It makes sense, I guess, since it's at those times of year that I begin to transition from one set of clothing to the other, and it's a natural time to reevaluate what I have and what I no longer want to wear. I don't have a huge wardrobe, but I have more than enough clothing. I used to buy new clothes all the time, but recently, mostly because of my budget, I've cut it down to a few (or several) times a year. I also used to buy things based mainly on price, and I ended up with some great clothes that way, but the majority of it either wore out too quickly, or I ended up tired of it after a year.

The last few years I've been trying to pick up better quality items, and things that are classic enough that I'll be able to wear them for a long time. The problem is that, if you're someone who was stupid enough to get a humanities PhD, your clothing budget hasn't actually really increased since college. Finding decent clothing you can afford is not easy. The next step up from cheap shit, these days, is cheap shit that's more expensive. For example: J. Crew. I really like how their Tippi sweater looks on me, and it comes in lots of interesting colors. Unfortunately, I've bought five of them over the past 3-4 years, and three of those have ended up with holes in them within a year. So no fucking more. I also bought a very nice pair of their grey Martie pants in January at full price (though with a gift card), and the first time I washed them, the hems at the bottom of both legs fell out. I would be pissed if that had happened to $30 pants, much less a $90 pair.

I'm trying to branch out when it comes to the places I shop for clothing, while also being more particular about what I buy. For a couple of years now, I've felt adrift when it's come to my personal style. When I was in my 20s, I had a pretty strong sense of how I liked to dress, but the kinds of things I wore then just don't feel like me anymore. For instance, I wore a lot of dresses, lots of matchy-matchy colorblocking, bright colors, and graphic prints. Very early-wardrobe-remix-on-Flickr. Here are two outfit photos from 2010 (left) and 2012 (right). For instance, on the left, you can see (maybe) that the necklace matches the dress, the cardigan matches the shoes, and the cami matches the tights. It's a lot.

Obviously these outfits are outdated, but it's not just that. They were me then, but they aren't me now. It's not exactly a dire identity crisis, but as someone who has always been interested in fashion and who felt pretty strongly about presenting herself through her clothing, it's a bit disorienting.

Just buying random articles of clothing that appeal to me has not solved my problem. Just a couple of months ago I bought a lacy black polyester dress with a high collar at H&M, and it's pretty in theory, but I don't know when I'm ever going to wear it. I was a little delirious and desperate, I think.

I've also tried to hone in on my preferred style by adding whatever caught my eye to a Pinterest board, and I ended up with a lot of highly embellished evening gowns, retro skirts and heels, and menswear-inspired outfits. Hardly a coherent style.

Recently I came across a blog post, that I cannot now locate, describing the personal style guide based on body types developed by David Kibbe, the man in the photo at the top of this post who looks like someone you would definitely want dressing you. As you can no doubt tell, his system was published in the 80s. You can find lots of information about it out there, but the basic premise is that you take a quiz where you categorize the shape and size of just about every individual part of your body and it provides a label based on your results, along with recommendations for what styles of clothes will suit you best. You can see a helpfully illustrated version of the quiz here, along with a spreadsheet with all your style recommendations.

As you can imagine, there are plenty of potential problems with a prescriptive body type system that was developed in the 80s. I'm not going to critique it at too much length (though feel free to add your objections in the comments!), but I'll mention a few of them:

1. It's all very femmey. In fact, the more or less feminine you are advised to dress is based on your body shape, despite the fact that there are many reasons people wear gendered clothes other than how big their hands are or how round their hips are.

2. Some people just don't fit well into any of the prescribed categories. For example, proportions are correlated to height in this system, and so there's only one category that's technically for women my height, who are supposed to have an angular and willowy shape. That is really, really not me.

3. Your personality is supposed to be related to your body shape. There's all sorts of woo in there.

4. It's prescriptive. Don't tell me what not to do!

5. It's from the 80s. Ok, maybe I could find some "softly draping, pleated, tapered trousers" if I wanted to, but that's kind of A Look these days, not an everyday pants choice.

Personally, I still found the Kibbe method useful. I got slotted into the Soft Natural category based on my quiz. Now, while I may be soft and squishy, I don't know about natural, and the two words together make me sound like a cuddly hippie rather than the abrasive skeptic that I aspire to me. Nevertheless, most of the recommendations are actually the kinds of clothes that I do like to see myself in. Basically, I'm advised to wear clothes that are a bit flowy/drapey, but defined (not too tightly) at the waist. Somewhat intricate or artsy detail is good, but nothing too fussy. Textured fabrics, no garments that are too structured, assymmetry. Lots of the clothes I already have that I feel good wearing have these qualities: a little drapey, but with a clear waist, not too twee and not too masculine, but a touch of either is ok. I think the key thing to remember is that if there's something that really doesn't appeal to you (drapey pants) or doesn't seem to describe you (being under 5'8"), you can just ignore it. You are smart and you know yourself, so trust your judgement.

My plan now is to go ahead with Mr. Kibbe's prescription for me, and to see if it solves all my life's problems. I have to admit, however, that my first attempt was not a shining success. When the Gap had 40% off recently (like they do today, code TODAY), I ordered two things, one that fit my new Soft Natural persona, and one that didn't, really.

I bought this dress. Flowy! Defined waist! Pretty detail but not too much!

Total disaster. It looked like a sack on me--or at best, a sloppy night gown. 

I also bought this shirt, which is absolutely perfect.

I always like boatnecks and stripes, though they don't necessarily fit my prescription. Whatever, I'm not going to give them up. The fabric this shirt is made from is extremely soft, so that's got to count for something.

I'm working on branching out in where I shop. There aren't many (any?) decent thrift shops in my areas, but I live close to a TJ Maxx now, so I should probably spend more time there. I do like the laziness allowed by online shopping, though of course there is that constant threat of spectacular failure, like that dress above. (For instance, I'm constantly tempted by all the dresses from eShakti, but I've had such terrible experiences with what I've bought there in the past that I've all but given up.)

I'd love to hear anything you have to contribute on the topic of personal style and finding quality clothes on a budget. What are your secrets? REVEAL THEM TO ME. If you're a Kibbe expert, you are welcome to correct my self diagnosis--and if you're not, as I said above, feel free to critique the hell out of everything here.

Do you feel like you have a strong personal style? Is it instinctive, or do you follow some set of rules? Have you ever used a "system" to tell you what you should wear, or just to guide you? What are your favorite places to shop for clothes? Why?


  1. It's a shame you don't live near any good secondhand stores, because that's my secret. I shop consignment--it's cheap, and you know it didn't fall apart after one wearing. And there's a variety of styles all on the rack together.
    Maybe it's a blessing for you that there aren't any nearby: you can shop consignment when you go out of town and then not have to worry about being at a fancy cocktail party with the woman whose dress you're wearing (sorry, I read too many novels).

    1. There's a Salvation Army that's a huge mess and a thrift store on the opposite side of town that's hard to get to. Oh and a quirky thrift store down town with a bunch of stuff from the 60s that I can't begin to fit into. But maybe I need to take another look around to see what I can find locally.

  2. Have you tried Thredup, the 'online thrift store?'
    Can you talk about your eShakti experience? What didn't you like about it? Did you do the custom fitting? I just ordered a dress from them so now I want to know the dirt....

    1. I forgot all about ThredUp, thanks!
      I know a lot of people love eShakti, so my problems might be specifically taller people problems. But their clothes are cut for a 5'2" woman, I think. You can get longer sleeves and skirts, etc., but in a dress that means you're still going to get the shoulders too short and the waist too high and so forth. So that means that at my height (about 5'9") I pretty much have to do the custom thing, and when I've done it, the measurements haven't ended up being what I requested. If you do custom, you don't get the fees refunded if you return it. I just looked at their site and saw that they are now offering free returns, though, so maybe it's worth gambling with again. I'd be interested to hear what your experience is like when you get your dress!

  3. Do you buy from Aliexpress? I buy there constantly because I'm very near China and shipping is almost always free although likely not to US. I have absolutely adored some of the things i bought there, especially a $25 usd shirt dress i wear all the time and always get compliments on. I always avoid chiffon though because cheap chiffon looks cheap. You really need to scrutinize the product pictures to get a feel if it would look decent in real life.

    In terms of personal style, I've been living in skater/A line dresses for the longest time because I was insecure about my ass. I think that kind of silhouette probably looks good on you, while being soft and natural still. The sack nightgown doesn't have the kind of defined waist/ structured top that would flatter people with fuller figures - it's best left to thin willowy sorts. I've always had problems in my younger days finding things that would flatter my hourglass shape, but those A line dresses are the most idiot proof!

    I feel that ultimately, good style is about balance. Very low cut dresses must be of a decent length. Short dresses must be reasonably covered up on top. Loose tops must be paired with tight pants (if not it's potato sack supreme) busy prints on a dress means boring everything else. One bright colour means neutral everywhere else. And I try not to buy anything that is too complicated or busy - I've seen dresses with lace AND prints AND a high collar etc and it's so confusing. Can't go wrong with simple (but always not boring)! I can't be bothered about shoes nowadays so they're all single coloured suede that go with everything. Most of my wardrobe is over 5 years old - try not to use dryers? We always line dry our clothes here and they take decades to fall apart ;)

    1. I'm hesitant to order from there, because from what I've seen, the clothes seem to be designed for much smaller people in general. But I could take another look.

      And yes, I should have known the dress would be bad. I've had dresses in the same general silhouette that were great, but they need to be less blousey, and wide tie belts never work for me. It's good to write these things down so I can remember. :)

      I don't put anything but PJs and socks in the dryer! I wish I could hang things out to dry, though. It's not allowed in my apartment complex (or most of them here).

      It sounds like you have a great sense of what works for you!

  4. I went through a similar transition (crisis feels like too strong a word) a few years ago and would buy things at stores like H&M that I never really wore but loved at the time. I still regret a black t-shirt with a cat outlined in sequins (less cute than it sounds). Now I've developed a solid work uniform and found good stuff at Old Navy and Target. Not high end, but i find myself wearing mostly black jeans and a variety of tops all in the same silhouette. Boring but easy, I guess.

    1. That sounds a lot like what my wardrobe is like now. There's nothing wrong with it, and I think I usually look totally fine, but I used to be more excited about getting dressed and to have more fun with it, you know? I know that's not something that everyone wants or needs on a daily basis!

    2. Yep, it's serviceable but boring. On one hand, it makes getting ready for work easy, on the other, I would like to be able to look nice and have it be noticeable instead of picking my black shirt that has a v-neck instead of the black scoop neck.

  5. My biggest style challenge (other than the fact that I chose to get a humanities PhD) is that my body type doesn't lend itself well to my preferred aesthetic. I like sleek, streamlined, slightly androgynous looks with eccentric twists, but I have an hourglass figure and a disproportionately large chest. I'd be better off if I liked vintagey pinup clothing or could afford to get my clothes tailored, but...yeah, no. My uniform, so far as I have one, is black skinny jeans, some sort of neutral top, and either a blazer or the leather jacket my stepmother bought from some shady seller on Amazon.

    Unfortunately, I'm not sure I'll have much fun getting dressed until I'm earning a living wage and can afford a more interesting and higher-quality wardrobe. Until then, I'm leaning pretty heavily on makeup and accessories to express my personality through style. I wish I had any advice for you, but I'm facing a lot of the same problems.

    1. Yeah, that seems to be one of the issues with the system I wrote about. You're only supposed to dress androgynously if you don't have a curvy body. Which I guess makes sense if you're hoping to have your menswear garments hang the way they would on most men, but it's very limiting. I had the same realization when I looked at the more masculine fashions I was posting on Pinterest--they won't look like that on me. But I can wear a men's-style show with my skinny trousers and a sweater, I guess.

    2. Yeah, I've been getting a lot of mileage out of the oxfords I bought in England last year! I don't expect menswear-inspired clothes to look on me the way they'd look on a cis man, but one day I'd like to be able to afford a button-down shirt that fits perfectly at the chest and isn't baggy everywhere else. Sigh.

  6. I LOVE TjMaxx!! I get so many high-end pieces there. And yep, still go to goodwill every once in a while. My goal this year was to create more of a color cohesive wardrobe instead of one of those teeny capsule ones. So most of my clothes end up being black, white, or grey. That get's boring reeeal quick so I have certain color pops to add in every season- this last winter it was mostly hunter green and deep burgundy/cranberry items that I could mix in, and this summer I'm feeling very light pink so far. Also, I love jewelry so funky necklaces are kind of my thing.

    1. I finally made it to TJ Maxx and I did find a few good things! I really should go back more.


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